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Marketing at the Speed of Culture: Digital Trends, Data & Social Media for the Industry


“Data is King.” It’s an expression we are hearing more and more but what exactly does it mean? More importantly, what does it mean for your business? How can you capture, scrutinize and use data to successfully promote and market your restaurant or food service business, especially post COVID? 

This topic resonated deeply with restaurant owners at this year’s Restaurants Canada Show. Presented by Tik Tok Canada, “Marketing Your Business for Success” was one of the top attended Speakers Stage sessions. Moderated by Jo-Ann McArthur, President, Nourish Food Marketing, Canada’s only full-service marketing agency specializing in the food sector, attendees has the opportunity to listen to industry experts – Chris Barrett, CEO of Operatic, a creative digital agency and once a restaurant owner himself and Vanessa (V) Gaik, Head of Brand Partnerships & Sales, Tik Tok Canada – about emerging digital trends and data optimization opportunities every restaurant owner should be considering right now as the world settles into the “new normal.” 

While the restaurant industry prepares for what’s next, it’s evident everyone is thinking about future proofing more than ever. Chris Barrett identified four key digital trends and enhancements that all restaurant owners should be focusing on: 

1. Own your online ordering experiences 

2. Understanding your customers and offer multiple payment options 

3. Automation – especially in the face of labour shortages 

4. Diversifying revenue streams 

“Right now almost 50 per cent of our clients have taken the step to ensure their customers are ordering directly from their restaurant versus a third party app and we expect that trend to continue,” says Barrett. Owning your online ordering experience allows you to own the end-to-end customer engagement, to get to know your customer better and to create centralized data repositories. “This allows a restaurant owner to control their brand experience as opposed to putting it in the hands of someone else,” he continues. He also advises leveraging QR codes for contactless ordering. “We expect about 95 per cent of customers already use them – it’s not very often technology is free. It saves money for the restaurant, improves the customer experience and reduces errors, and can even assist with payment.” 

Which brings us to the second trend – non-traditional payment options. Payment is personal so make sure you have different payment options for your customers based on their needs and preferences. Make use of digital wallets or virtual wallets such as Google Pay or Apple Pay. 

Automation or having a strong restaurant management system will be another key digital trend for restaurants in a post pandemic world. Restaurants now have food orders coming from multiple sources – take out, delivery, in-house orders – add in labour shortages and quite quickly things can get messy. “If you’re not aggregating all those inputs into a seamless way for the kitchen to function or if you’re not thinking about communications from the front of house to the back of house, there’s a lot of opportunity for things to go wrong,” says Barrett. 

QR Code

The final trend is to focus on developing a diversified revenue stream. “During the pandemic, about 45 per cent of people got used to buying something outside of traditional food and drink,” says Barrett. “Customers are really looking to support restaurants whether through buying a special sauce only your restaurant makes, offering a mixology course or selling cocktail kits.” He continues, “You need to pay attention in terms of what else you can do to diversify revenue streams as it’s something customers are there to support you with.” 

All of these trends have one thing in common – a reliance on technology and digital interactions to augment the digital or in-person experience. The key is to figure out how to heighten the customer experience throughout the entire journey – before the customer goes to the restaurant, while at the restaurant and even post dining – how can you use digital tools to enhance the overall experience? 

That’s where a social media platform like TikTok can make a big difference. With over 70 billion views of food-related content, TikTok is an emerging social media platform which allows restaurants to engage with customers in an authentic and community driven way. “The most interesting thing about TikTok is the sense of community,” says Vanessa (V) Gaik, Head of Brand Partnerships and Sale. “There’s a lot of people eager to come to the platform to collaborate and learn and we have lots of different communities that can really help bolster your business.” Best known for its trend setting capabilities, TikTok is essentially marketing happening at the speed of culture. “You need to figure out a way to adapt your business to the trends,” advises Gaik. “There is no wrong way to show up on the platform as long as you’re being true to your brand. The best part is that there is no failure, it’s all about learning on the platform.” 

So how can restaurant owners leverage TikTok? “I think the most important thing as a new business owner on the platform is to spend some time on the platform, get to know the creators who are speaking to your community, identify food trends and understand how your business wants to show up on the platform.” Gaik strongly recommends opening a business account on TikTok to unlock a suite of tools to empower your business. “These tools will help you show up on TikTok just like the larger brands – so whether that’s licensed music, creative tools and video effects or collaborations with creators, there are a ton of tools available to you and they are free.” 

A current key food trend on TikTok also identified by both Nourish Food Marketing’s 2022 Trend Report is sustainability and conscious consumption, especially for the younger generation. “TikTok invites people in and pulls back that hospitality curtain a little bit,” says Jo-Ann McArthur. Gaik completely agrees: “Content about sustainability is something that TikTok audiences really lean into,” she says. “They love to see behind the scenes project work, perhaps it’s a charity event that your business is supporting, the local food market you source your produce from. That transparency really helps to build the relationship with the audience.” 

Barrett extends the concept of sustainability beyond food content, focusing on search engine optimization – specifically making sure you have an up to date Google Business Profile. Previously known as Google My Business, it can be a massive first engagement for people who are searching for a new experience. “People are searching in a non-branded fashion,” says Barrett. “About 55 to 60 per cent of people’s online interactions are with a Google Business Profile. It’s the first handshake to introduce someone to your brand and it’s something you can take action on right away.” He does advise businesses to ensure verifying the data on the profile and encourages the use of photos and 360° tours. Your Google Business Profile should be managed like you would any other social media platform – ensuring constant updating of content and management of Google reviews – the good and the bad. 

Right now, almost 50 per cent of our clients have taken the step to ensure their customers are ordering directly from their restaurant versus a third-party app.

The good and the bad is something that also resonates with TikTok users and the content they engage with. “TikTok is not that polished and that’s why it’s successful,” says Gaik. “The most engaging content shows the behind the scenes work, specifically the hard work that restaurant owners deal with every day. There’s a big story to tell from over the last two years within the restaurant industry and I think a lot of people would listen.” 

Man Cooking

David Wen, owner of Parle by Viet Fresh has just recently started a TikTok account and has even gone so far as to hire a TikTok manager. He also relies heavily on feedback from his staff on what content his customers would like to see. “My staff are the ones that talk with customers every day, they know what customers like and they know what they don’t like. Involving your staff in promoting the brand is one of the most important things you can do.” 

Understanding your customers is also one of the most important things you can do to support your business. “What we’ve started to see is the collapse of the marketing funnel,” says Gaik. “It’s becoming this never-ending loop of not only having that holistic journey but also being top of mind. Over 40 per cent of customers are downloading loyalty apps so we know that something is changing with the Canadian consumer.” It is vital to use the customer data you have and action it in a way that appeals to all your customers – both the customers you know and the customers you don’t know you have – creating that holistic journey where people can live and breathe the brand. 

Customers are really looking to support restaurants whether through buying a special sauce only your restaurant makes, offering a mixology course or selling cocktail kits.

Barrett agrees. “Build your strategy on the premise that everything needs to be properly integrated and uphold an authentic end to end brand experience. The biggest challenge for restaurant owners,” says Barrett, “is that often they will piecemeal tactics together all at once instead of picking a few and doing it right.” For example, leverage data from your ordering and payments platforms to understand your customer’s food preferences and tie that data back into a customer loyalty program. “Maybe you have a loyalty program that allows certain customers to order something on the menu that other people can’t order – if you can tie it into a circular loop it’s going to help you be more successful.” 

Leveraging the power of data insights to promote your restaurant takes many shapes and forms and can be overwhelming. “People have this idea of having big picture data in order to make accurate decisions but that’s not the case,” says Barrett. Data can be a lived experience, data can be desk research, data can be a focus group, data can be a TikTok posting and engagement with your online community. “One of the biggest hurdles for people is that they will hesitate in terms of waiting for things to get back to normal,” says Barrett. “And I think that we just need to embrace that this is the new normal and not be afraid to dig in and get started.”

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